Friday, March 19, 2010

The Golden Rule of Sales

There is an inherent discomfort with selling among most technical professionals. It's not hard to understand why: They've been on the other side of the sales transaction. Ask them what they think about salespeople (as I have on numerous occasions) and the responses you get are overwhelmingly negative.

Is that a problem when technical professionals are asked to sell? Of course. I see two primary ways that past experiences with salespeople impact our effectiveness as sellers:
  • Reluctance to sell. Many A/E firms struggle to get their seller-doers out of the office and meeting with clients. The excuse "I've been too busy" is often a cover-up for the real sentiment: They just don't like imposing on clients since they know what it's like to be in the buyer's role.

  • Tendency to behave like a salesperson. The interesting contradiction is that technical professionals often resort to the very same tactics that they dislike about salespeople. Why? That's the only model they have to go by.

There's a better way and it's not all that complicated. Simply follow the Golden Rule: Treat others like you'd like to be treated. It works! You don't have to succumb to traditional selling to be effective in bringing in new business. In fact, it works against you. Show prospective clients that you genuinely care about them, help them address their needs and concerns, and watch the sales follow.

Following are some tips for putting the Golden Rule into action and showing clients you care during the sales process:

Never waste the client's time. The client's time is his or her most precious asset, so treat it with respect. Always bring something of value in exchange for that time, usually in the form of information, insight, or advice related to specific needs or problems.

Focus on client needs, concerns, and interests. Most sales calls are motivated by the seller's self-interest. Don't think clients don't notice. You can set yourself apart by focusing on the client, not you or your firm. Treat the meeting like a consulting session rather than a sales call.

Listen empathetically. Salespeople are notorious for being big talkers and not good listeners. You will do well to steer clear of the stereotype. Listen not only for information, but to try to see things from the client's perspective. That enables you to provide better answers and solutions, and generally be more responsive.

Maintain consistent contact. When you show up only when it's convenient or it benefits your firm (e.g., the RFP is coming out soon), clients take notice. In one survey, this was a common complaint by clients. If you really care about the client, you'll maintain consistent communication, even when the work isn't imminent.

Be a diligent problem solver. This point is similar to the previous one, but shifts the setting from the client's office to yours. Clients sense you care when you regularly forward information and advice relevant to their most pressing needs. It sends the message, "I've been thinking about you."

Always deliver what you promise. Any client request or any offer you make to do something for the client represents an informal contract. Your failure to deliver serves as a preview of what the client can expect after the sale. So be sure not to disappoint even in the smallest regard.

Wondering what step to take next in building the relationship with a prospective client? There's no substitute for knowing what the client would like. But lacking that, you probably won't go far wrong if you simply follow the Golden Rule. "How would I like to be treated?" The answer won't lead you to follow the path of the traditional salesperson. And for that reason, it will likely give you the edge.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Marketing Your Intellectual Capital

In a recent survey by The Bloom Group, professional service firms said that having strong intellectual capital was the most important ingredient of effective marketing. Interesting. I don't recall ever hearing A/E firm principals talk about leveraging their intellectual capital as a marketing strategy. Are we missing something?

Intellectual capital is closely related to the concept of "thought leadership," another term rarely heard in our industry. In large part, these are simply fancy ways of describing your knowledge and expertise. But it goes deeper. Intellectual capital, from a marketing perspective, is sharing some of what you know in ways that attract interest in your firm. It positions you as the definitive experts, the "thought leaders" in your specific field.

Obviously, there is a lot of expertise in our industry. So why aren't more firms applying it to the way they market? Most firms I've worked with simply don't seem to understand the value of content marketing. They follow the traditional approach of focusing their marketing primarily on self-promotion. Unfortunately that approach generally doesn't work. Firms seem to have acknowledged that fact based on how many cut marketing staff and expenses in the last year.

Even among the firms that I've been able to persuade to change their approach, most still seem to struggle to make it happen. Admittedly, content marketing can take more time than the usual "image marketing." Some firms probably lack the requisite skill set. But if I can do it as a one-man operation, isn't it reasonable to assume that your firm can do it also? I think so. So here's some advice:

Identify clients' hot topics. What are their most pressing needs, highest priorities, crucial goals? To produce content of value to clients, you must start here. Many A/E firms have a limited understanding of their clients' needs beyond the scope of their firm's technical expertise. You are better able to provide added value to clients when you understand their strategic and personal needs as well as the technical needs you normally focus on (see "Uncovering the Client's Real Needs").

Inventory and evaluate your firm's existing content. This will include articles, white papers, presentations, newsletters, direct mailers--anything that facilitates sharing what you know with the outside world. Many firms have very few such resources to draw from. What about your firm? If you have a fair amount of your intellectual capital in accessible form, how relevant is it to your clients' hot topics? How good is it? Whatever you have that's worth sharing, be sure to convert it to electronic form also so it's easier to distribute.

Search for the very best content you can find on the internet. Even if you haven't created a lot of your own content, you can still build a useful resource library using content from others. Although I've written hundreds of articles, I still use others' articles, white papers, and tools extensively. I share them through my website, my monthly ezine, and simply by forwarding web links via email to my clients. That's the beauty of the internet. Not my intellectual capital, you say? Ah, but it's almost just as effective when I'm the one sharing it. You can do the same.

Develop a plan for building and leveraging your intellectual capital. There are myriad ways to use the resource library you're building to market your firm. To focus your efforts, you should have a plan. Address the following questions: Do we have the content clients are interested in? How good is it? What more do we need (both subject matter and quality)? What forms should it take? How should we share this information and advice with clients? Do we have the people and the time we need to make it work? (For ideas, check out my post "Marketing for Leads")

Give your technical experts the support they need. One reason most firms have little content is that few technical professionals have either the time or the aptitude to produce it. A better approach is to have someone else produce the content based on interviews with your experts. The resulting documents should bear the names of both the writer and the expert(s). Some resort to ghost writing, but that seems less than fully honest and ethical to me. In my experience, sharing the credit doesn't diminish the reputations of your experts.

Consider hiring outside help. Most A/E firms are ill-equipped to produce substantial content. So you may decide you need some help. There are reasonably affordable options available. Look for a writer to work on a part-time basis. There are many in the marketplace, some of whom are not that expensive for the value they can bring to your marketing effort. With the decline of newspapers, reporters are an alternative to consider. Many of them are skilled at writing about all kinds of topics and at doing so on a quick turnaround. I've used college interns, even high school students, to conduct internet research and help produce content. You might be surprised what you can accomplish for a relatively low cost if you're creative.

Why does content marketing work? Because it serves rather than sells. It provides helpful information, insights, and advice. It begins or supplements the process of helping clients address their needs. If you're not leveraging your intellectual capital to serve prospective clients, you may be overlooking your best available marketing option.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Building Client Relationships

Suggesting five steps to building client relationships admittedly oversimplifies a complex process. But at least it outlines a course of action. Most A/E firms have no real strategy for what is probably their most important task. Successful businesses are founded on strong customer relationships. Coming out of the worst recession in 70 years, those relationships are especially valuable.

The groundwork for client relationships is started in the business development process. Most work in our industry is pursued through a transactional approach--chasing projects, touting credentials, writing proposals. Unfortunately, lasting relationships with clients gained by this approach usually don't develop. A relational approach to sales, by contrast, lays a foundation for an effective, enduring client relationship (see this post for more on relational vs. transactional selling).

So where to start in building stronger relationships? I offer five basic steps that apply both before and after the sale:

Lead with a service mindset. The most important threshold to cross in cultivating a relationship is to earn the other party's trust. Building trust can take considerable time, but demonstrating that you have genuine concern for the client shortens the process. However, one study found that only 35% of professional service sellers had convinced the client that they really cared.

Why might technical professionals struggle to demonstrate their concern? Part of it is a tendency to focus more on the work than the client. Some are hampered by a traditional sales approach that stresses self promotion. Others perhaps lack effective interpersonal skills, such as the ability to show empathy or to listen attentively.

The bottom line is your motives. Are you drawn to clients to serve them or yourself? In a sales environment, clients are naturally skeptical of your real intent. So you have to dispel their expectations and show that you really do care, and are there to serve. That is the best first step you can take in building a strong client relationship.

Establish mutuality. A good relationship has a balance of give and take. Usually when relationships turn sour, an imbalance is evident. One party perceives that he or she is giving more than receiving. That may be okay for a time, but over the long term a solid relationship must be characterized by mutuality--shared benefits, common commitment, genuine concern for each other.

The need for mutuality, once again, starts during the sales process. In traditional selling, the seller usually takes the client's time and gives little in return. A better way is to bring something of value (information, insights, problem solving, etc.) to every meeting with the client. Mutuality, of course, must be preserved through contract negotiations (it often isn't) and the course of the project.

The best way to achieve mutuality is to explicitly pursue it. While you should lead with a service mindset, you should also expect reciprocation. Make clear to the client what your needs are by negotiating not only the terms of the contract but the terms of the relationship. This is a step I call "service benchmarking," where at the start of the project both parties clarify expectations and spell out how they will work together.

Keep your commitments. A necessary condition of trust, of course, is trustworthiness. The need to keep your commitments might seem too obvious to merit mention here, but I've witnessed too many cases of neglect in this regard. Missed deadlines, failure to heed client requests, poor quality--all indicative of things promised that weren't delivered.

One solution is readily apparent: Don't promise what you can't or won't deliver. Yet project managers often do just that. They feel pressured to tell the client what he or she wants to hear instead of the truth. We'll have that to you by next Friday," the PM says without checking with staff to confirm that it's reasonable, or even when the PM knows it's not.

A good client service principle to keep in mind is "better to disappoint the client early rather than late." Honesty is always the best policy, even when it's not always the most popular one. The truth eventually comes out, and if you're unable to keep your promises, the relationship will suffer.

Collaborate. One of the best indications of a strong relationship with your client is the degree to which the two of you collaborate. By collaborate, I'm not referring to simple coordination and communication. Real collaboration involves joint effort to plan, design, and execute the project.

There's something about collaboration that fortifies the relationship. The two parties work more closely together, the client-consultant hierarchy is flattened, both benefit from the synergistic interaction with the other. I recognize that some clients are content to stay hands-off, and many PMs seem to prefer that arrangement. But such clients usually will not be among your best because they don't view the relationship as one of the chief benefits of working with you.

To promote greater collaboration with your clients, engage them early. Get them actively involved in planning the project and outline how the two parties can best work together. Schedule collaborative events like design charrettes and workshops. At a minimum, keep the client involved through regular communication and discussion about options and opportunities.

Think long term. Transactions center on the work at hand, a contractual obligation to deliver a specific scope of services. But relationships look beyond the now. In your first project with a client, there is likely no commitment on the client's part to a long-term relationship. You have to prove yourself worthy of such consideration.

The simplest way to position your firm for the long term is to give as much attention to the relationship as you do to the project. Hopefully, you've benchmarked expectations about the working relationship and you're delivering the level of service that you promised--at a minimum. It's best to have someone in addition to the PM tending the relationship, because the PM's interests tend to be divided between the work and the relationship.

Another way to build long-term relationships is to maintain them beyond the project. Many firms neglect clients when the work runs out. Then when the next project is on the horizon, they want to re-engage. Clients readily perceive where their interests lie. Remember, the relationship itself is one of the primary benefits of winning new work.

You may knock it out of the park in terms of the project's technical merits, but you may not get another chance at bat with that client if you've not invested adequately in the relationship. That's an unfortunate case of misplaced priorities. Because you don't build business as much by the work you do as by the relationships you forge along the way.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Cure for the Post-Recession Blues

I noticed a headline on my internet home page today reporting a "modest but steady economic recovery." The report is mixed, of course, with sectors of the economy still stuck in neutral--or even heading in reverse. Your firm's core markets may be among those.

But even if business is on the upswing, your firm may still be experiencing some hangover effects from the worst of the recession. If you laid off staff, and especially if the uncertainty persists, you may have a lingering trust deficit. Layoffs have a tendency of eroding trust between management and staff even in the best of workplaces. The problem is perhaps magnified by the underlying causes of this recession, which have raised general distrust of corporate governance to new levels in the U.S.

Layoffs also create higher stress levels. Fear of losing one's job and uncertainty about the company's future prospects certainly increase stress. So does taking on added responsibilities left by those who were let go. With many firms still cautious about hiring even though workload has picked up, longer hours may be contributing still further to the tension.

There is a point, of course, where the overload of broken trust, uncertainty, and job pressures becomes detrimental. Perhaps some of your staff are approaching that point. The Human Function Curve illustrates the progression of the problem:
Some stress in the workplace can be productive, specifically the stress of challenging work, high standards, and pressing deadlines. This positive stress, called eustress, can help workers achieve optimum levels of performance.

But negative stress works against productivity. It may be masked by busyness, but output per unit of effort begins to drop when the stress of distrust, uncertainty, unrelenting pressure, and other factors start to wear on workers. Undoubtedly negative stress has been elevated by the recession. And at a time when you need optimum output in a still tough economy, this stress may be hampering your firm's efforts to recover.

So what can you do to alleviate the level of negative stress in your office or department? Obviously, the general strategies for creating a better workplace help offset these stress-inducing factors. You can refer to previous posts for insight on several of these. But let me focus here on something else you can do to quickly rebuild trust and relieve the anxiety.

This is a lesson I learned several years ago when I got involved in risk communication and community relations associated with controversial environmental cleanup projects. Similarly, residents near these sites harbored distrust and anxiety due to the perceived risks from toxins in their soil and groundwater. Risk assessment experts were often brought in to examine exposure pathways and create statistical models to show that the actual risks were not a significant health concern.

But residents typically remained unconvinced. As I explored their response further, I discovered the real cause of their angst. It wasn't so much a matter of risk or uncertainty; it was an issue of control. You see, people voluntarily assume certain risks everyday. Some--like driving a car--may pose a far greater threat to life and health than the potential exposures to hazardous materials at many of these sites. But the difference is those individuals chose to assume the risk of driving, but not the risk from contaminants.

The best strategy for alleviating much of their concern, I learned, was to give them some sense of control. Engage them in the process. I found that involving residents in planning for reuse of contaminated sites was particularly effective. It shifted focus from the negative to the positive. It also helped rebuild trust.

So what has this to do with curing the post-recession blues in your firm? I think many employees are in much the same place emotionally as those hazardous waste site neighbors. They are faced with new fears and stresses, and what is particularly unsettling is the feeling that there's not much they can do about it. I've heard several say in recent months that they're just waiting for "the other shoe to drop" (or something similar).

The best way to counter such feelings in my experience is to actively engage employees in working on solutions to the problems the company faces. Need more business? Spread participation in the business development process across the organization. There's something that people at every level can contribute (see this post). Facing increased pricing pressure? Invite staff to help identify opportunities to make your work processes more efficient.

Most employees would rather be fighting the battle than wondering if they'll end up as collateral damage. Invite them to be part of your firm's recovery efforts. Not only will that help rebuild trust and alleviate negative stress; but you'll end up with better solutions than management is likely to come up with on its own. And a larger team committed to making it happen.